Alex Peake-Tomkinson

Too close to home: Nonfiction, by Julie Myerson, reviewed

Myerson again addresses the devastating effect on a family of drug addiction – this time in a deeply personal novel

Too close to home: Nonfiction, by Julie Myerson, reviewed
Julie Myerson. [Getty Images]
Text settings

Nonfiction: A Novel

Julie Myerson

Corsair, pp. 288, £14.99

Julie Myerson has, somewhat confusingly, written a novel called Nonfiction. The confusion of course is the point, because this is her squarest attempt so far at auto-biographical fiction. The French author Serge Doubrovsky is widely credited with writing the first ‘autofiction’ when he published Fils in 1977. Autobiographical novels have proliferated ever since, notably by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk and Edward St Aubyn. Hari Kunzru, when asked to discuss similarities between himself and his protagonist in Red Pill (2020), said: ‘It was just the simplest solution to a set of problems to give him the furniture of my biography.’

Myerson’s narrator is a novelist whose father dies by suicide and who has a child with a drugs problem. (The furore in 2009 over Myerson’s The Lost Child, partly about her eldest son’s skunk habit, was so great that a sympathetic journalist summed up the pre-publication reaction in an article entitled ‘Hating Julie Myerson’.) In Non-fiction, some details have understandably been moved around: the narrator has a brother (Myerson is the eldest of three sisters) and only one child (Myerson has three), who is a girl with a heroin addiction (rather than a boy with a cannabis problem). It transpires that Myerson’s son had an additional heroin habit but even if he hadn’t one senses that this raising of the stakes would appeal to her, since she is very clear about the need for danger in fiction.

The narrator also has a creative writing student, a somewhat self-satisfied young woman whose work ‘lacks jeopardy’. Scenes which could be self-indulgent are actually gripping – partly because there is a small sense of schadenfreude in watching the narrator disrupt the student’s composure, and also because one can feel Myerson’s exhilaration at the idea of creative risk. In fairness, there is jeopardy everywhere in her work – a friend of hers even called her novels her ‘Dead Babies Books’.

At one point, a toxic ex-boyfriend tells the narrator that writing fiction is ‘hiding in plain sight’ – and this feels very close to the bone. Fans of Myerson will know that she often appears to explore her worst fears in her novels, but that now seems to include questioning her motives for writing. Nonfiction is satisfyingly propulsive; but for all the pleasure of reading it and admiring the control over the material, I did feel it might now be time for Myerson to look beyond her own life.